Church settles lawsuit for $600,000

First Baptist of St. Johns to pay ex-employees fired after reporting abuse

Two former employees of a St. Johns church have been awarded $600,000 in the settlement of a lawsuit in which they charged that the church's former pastor fired them for reporting possible sexual abuse by a church employee.

The lawsuit settlement also transfers ownership of the First Baptist Church of St. Johns away from a nonprofit organization that the former pastor controlled - and bans the former pastor, the Rev. Daniel Pulliam, from being affiliated with the church.

The two former church employees, Francois and Darla Pilon, had reported that the church employee, a church sound technician, may have sexual abused four female church members, then ages 11 to 17 - including two of the Pilons' daughters.

The Pilons' lawsuit alleges that they first reported the possible abuse to Pulliam in March 2003 - the day after their daughter reported it to them - and that they then waited in vain for Pulliam to report the abuse to police. The Pilons reported the alleged abuse to police five months after reporting it to Pulliam. After Pulliam learned of their report, their lawsuit complaint charges, Pulliam fired them from their church jobs and evicted them from their church-owned house.

He also berated the Pilons during several Sunday sermons, telling the congregation that they were 'evil' and 'bad parents,' and 'that the girls were to blame for the abuse because of the way they dressed and acted around men,' according to their lawsuit.

Darla Pilon had been Pulliam's secretary; Francois was the church's custodian. Their compensation included being able to live with their family in the church-owned house.

'The Pilons are very relieved that it's over, so they can get on with their lives and so their children can get on with their lives,' said Dennis Steinman, the Pilons' lawyer.

Steinman said the abuse against the four girls occurred during several incidents over about a year before the Pilons' oldest daughter, now 20, reported it to her mother and a youth pastor.

Steinman has declined to disclose details of the alleged abuse but said after filing the lawsuit last year that 'the perpetrator performed illegal touching on these girls that was completely against their will and was forced upon them.'

No charges have been filed against the former church employee, who left his job and Portland after the accusations.

Pulliam's lawyer, David Griggs, said Pulliam 'maintained all along and still maintains that he did not commit the allegations that were alleged.' But Pulliam agreed to settle the case, Griggs said, to ensure that a large portion of the church's assets were not spent in litigation.

The Oregon Department of Justice became involved in the case last year because of the church assets - mostly church properties in St. Johns - and what was happening with the assets.

Four days after a March 2005 finding by the state Bureau of Labor and Industries sided with the Pilons, Pulliam formally transferred the deed for the church building and other pieces of church real estate to a nonprofit group called Church and Pastoral Services. Pulliam was president of Church and Pastoral Services, and the group's listed address was Pulliam's home address.

The settlement of the lawsuit calls for the church building and land around it to be transferred to a national Baptist church group that eventually will transfer church ownership to an entity formed by a group of church members who hope to start a new church.

The other main pieces of church real estate - which were across the street from the church and included the house where the Pilons lived - were sold, Steinman said.

About $50,000 of the proceeds from the sale went to the national Baptist organization for overseeing the church property. About $30,000 went to the lawyers who represented the church and Pulliam in defending the lawsuit. The remaining $600,000 went to the Pilons and their lawyers, Steinman said.

He said that the Pilons are 'very glad that … they will have had something to do with allowing a church that had been on that site for 100 years - that it will now have a chance for a new beginning.'